Neoliberalism’s children: Why the union makes us strong

So we’re almost there. Tomorrow, the largest industrial dispute in higher education in recent British history will begin with walkouts at over 60 universities across the country. This is the biggest test of UCU in its existence, and it is no exaggeration to note that, if the union fails in this dispute, its credibility will be destroyed. And as Jack Saunders has shown, the historical precedents for what happens next to industries/professions where the major union is broken in a dispute like this aren’t good.

Academics often get frustrated with UCU, as all union members do with their unions from time to time. UCU is either too militant – ‘strike happy’, I’ve heard it called – or not militant enough, caving in dispute after dispute for purely ‘notional’ victories. In this dispute, I’ve seen academics who voted for strike action complain that they wouldn’t have done so if they’d know what was in store, and some have said that the decision for 14 days of escalating action and continuing ASOS came as an (unwanted) bolt from the blue.

Some of the criticisms of the union are valid (and not merely because I’ve made them myself). At times, UCU at a national level and in the full-time cadre comes across as ineffectual and unprofessional. The advice given on the strike FAQs was, for instance, principled and normative – ‘You should not reschedule classes’ – but unclear that this meant universities legally could dock 100% of your pay if you elected not to do so when asked, in other words putting individual members on continuous stoppage.

This meant in practice that individual members up and down the country were left in awkward conversations with HoDs and other managers who could tell them that they’d be docked anything from 25%-100% of pay whilst many believed the union’s injunction not to reschedule meant they couldn’t.

Worse still, UCU was slow to post detailed information about strike funds and protocols for accessing them. As always, much excellent work has been done in local union branches raising local funds, which have sometimes been ahead of the national leadership. But the failure to get clear messages out about strike funds on the conclusion of the ballot led to two major problems.

The first was that precariat academics felt, in many cases, that they were being used as cannon fodder for permanent academics’ pension rights. HPLs, GTAs, TAs, ATs – the nomenclature varies, but those colleagues who teach hourly-paid or part-time were not given clear and immediate reassurance that their needs would be addressed as a matter of priority.

This led to very public generational splits on Twitter and recrimination which could have been avoided with early preparation, and also highlighted the fact that despite the work of the committed members of the Anticasualisation Network, the full-time leadership still doesn’t ‘get’ this issue.

The union has had the better part of four years to build strike funds and protocols for them since it was effectively forced back to work in 2014 following the belated realisation that employers could legally dock 100% of pay for a marking boycott, so this is inexcusable.

The second issue it raises, and personally speaking I think this was clear from Sally’s tone in the initial mass member emails, is that this was a massive bluff. Having asked for – and received – a big strike mandate in the ballot under the new draconian rules, UCU national leadership expected UUK to pull back, timed as the mandate was to arrive just before the end of talks.

But they didn’t pull back.

And now we are about to go to war. The martial metaphors are overdone in industrial disputes but as far as HE goes this is as real as it gets. But whilst the above criticisms are real, valid and – I think – fair, they’re far from the whole story.

Neoliberalism’s children and collective action

The union, for most people, doesn’t mean the national leadership or the full-timers, though it can mean recourse to the legal advice membership offers. The union is the local branch committee, the reps, the officers, the ones who plod on with casework and do their best on an individual basis to get results for members.

That’s not to say that the union is, or should be, merely a service union – but to make the hopefully uncontroversial point that movements should be built from the ground up.

I’m not on a UCU branch committee at the moment, but I’ve been a Secretary twice and a rep. It can be a lonely place, particularly when redundancies are looming and you get the sense the backing isn’t there for a dispute, or when you’re trying to get the best severance deal for a member of staff and you’re constantly worried that you might be on the borderline between safeguarding your member’s interests to the best of your ability and doing HR’s job for them.

Staff sometimes misunderstand the role of branch volunteers. They don’t get paid. Only a couple will usually get any facilities time, though some agreements are better than this. Yet they are vital for keeping it going. Over the past few weeks, volunteers and activists have been on strike committees, supporting/organising staff-student solidarity networks, getting banners and placards ready, holding members’ meetings, negotiating with sometimes reluctant SU leaderships to encourage support, and getting on with the casework that doesn’t go away.

You may not always agree with them, you may strongly disagree with their politics, but for the most part they’re trying. And more than this, they – and the union – are important because they are the closest approximation to a professional structure which we have.

Academics are notoriously difficult to organise; we are neoliberalism’s perfect children, however much we rail against it. We’re geeks for the most part, who like to do well and whose success is bound up with our personalities. Even as we criticise these phenomena, how many of us have humblebragged on Twitter when our new book/article/lecture invitation/grant/teaching award/whatever has come through? I’m not judging – I’ve done it myself, plenty of times.

We are competitive citizens in a competitive culture whose successes, for many of us, we tend to think of as our own. My outputs. My grant income. My PhD students. Of course, university management helps that along, with performance review and appraisal which is unequivocally about you.

But for the profession to survive, and for universities to survive in a recognisable sense, it has to be about us.

The beauty of neoliberalism as a political imaginary is that it has (to borrow an elegant phrase from the historian David Edgerton, writing on another topic) ‘commodified its own oppositionist discourse’. In other words, all the stuff we write condemning REF and marketisation still ends up in REF and is marketised in its own way.

Those of us who came to political maturity after 1979 – which is most of us, nowadays – have been socialised in a national political culture which has become increasingly hostile to collective ideas of citizenship (other than nationalism, and then often for exclusionary reasons), and the lived experience of being a ‘neoliberal subject’ is a tricky one. An overvalued faith that economics is a science, that individual self-interest is the best motivator, a sneaky suspicion that I might intellectually disagree with that but when push comes to shove I’ve got to play the game. And not only that, but it’s sensible (and even commendable) to do so.

And yet. That might be our fears talking, but our hearts say something different, and for once – as professional critics, which is what we are to some extent – they agree with our heads. We know neoliberalism doesn’t work. We know marketising the university and education doesn’t work. We know that students are always more than mere consumers.

The union is not perfect. The national leadership have made serious mistakes both in this dispute and the past, but I don’t think at any point they’ve acted in bad faith. They’ve done the best they could. Could others have done better? Maybe – and that’s a debate for union elections, including the ones that are happening now.

But the real issue isn’t there. Though the bluff may not have worked before the strike began, though the organisation may have left a little to be desired, there’s not a doubt in my mind that the national leadership was right to put it to a vote, right to declare for sustained strike action, and right to see it through.

The union is us. The academic profession is us. The university, despite what senior management seems to think, is us.

The union is a place where we can – if we fight hard – recapture our sense of ourselves as a united profession who govern themselves, as part of a learning community, standing shoulder to shoulder with our fellow-learners, students, on the picket lines, and where we can elect to reject the mantle of neoliberalism’s children.

That comes at a price. We will all take big financial hits in the next weeks, and possibly months. But the payoff is massive, and I don’t mean your pension pot.

Be in no doubt that elements within UUK want to break UCU. They have already done much to break the profession itself, not least sundering us from the governance of our own institutions. If we fail now, it will be a final defeat.

But even the threat of collective action has them cracking. Vice-chancellors breaking ranks. Revelations – thanks to the incredible work of Mike Otsuka – that Oxford and Cambridge colleges have played a key role in attempting to break USS. Guilds and student unions have moved in some cases from equivocal positions to ones of support, putting still more pressure on VCs. And, of all things, at least somewhat sympathetic articles in the FT and TheTimes.

Our votes and our work as members, activists and reps have gotten us this far, not to mention the sterling efforts of the students who are fighting alongside us. The hardest part comes now. But remember, that contrary to what management says, every day you are on strike you might be losing money but you’ll be rebuilding the university – because, as elsewhere, the union makes us strong.

Solidarity to everybody. We’ll be back tomorrow night with the first of our Strike TV films from a university to be announced 🙂

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